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Trump’s EPA must strengthen standards for deadly particle pollution

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In the midst of a deadly respiratory pandemic that preys on those with underlying heart and lung disease, EPA has refused to strengthen national standards for particle pollution, a lethal but invisible form of air pollution that causes heart attacks, stroke, asthma, cancer and premature death.

Particle pollution is made up of microscopic flecks of solids, liquids and gases. It comes from cars, trucks, factories, power plants and fires — and it’s one of the most consequential pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act. Also called particulate matter, soot, or PM 2.5, this deadly substance wreaks havoc in part because it is so minute. The particles can pass directly into the bloodstream from the lungs, triggering serious health conditions, including premature death. Some experts estimate that it is responsible for 85,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

Across the country, most areas are in compliance with national standards for particle pollution, which is good news. But scientific knowledge advances over time and regulatory agencies like the EPA need to take that knowledge into account when setting and updating national standards. Despite U.S. air quality having dramatically improved over the past several decades, it is now abundantly clear that particle pollution standards must be strengthened to better protect breathers everywhere. 

Thankfully, the reality of scientific advancement is baked into the Clean Air Act, under which the EPA is required to periodically review and update national standards for pollutants. But right now, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is flouting the requirements of the Clean Air Act and the mission of his agency. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved if Wheeler would follow the science and prioritize our health.

This is not an error of neglect. It is devastatingly deliberate: In 2018, Wheeler disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel, appointed by the EPA to advise the agency on the complex science behind particle pollution. After Wheeler summarily dismissed these experts, he relied on the advice of the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council (CASAC), none of whom have expertise in particle pollution science. The CASAC panel itself acknowledged that it had inadequate expertise to conduct the review.

In an effort to fulfill their original mandate, and despite Wheeler’s blatant disregard, the members of the Particulate Matter Review Panel met independently of the EPA in October 2019. The resulting report clearly indicates the need to strengthen the current standards. In addition to these outside expert advisers, the EPA’s own scientists also recommended strengthening the standards. They reported that reducing particle pollution in just 30 metro areas would prevent up to 12,500 premature deaths each year.

Even more troubling, Wheeler’s particle pollution proposal is hardly isolated. Take one look at the slew of policies coming out of the EPA in the past two months and it’s hard not to conclude that Wheeler is relishing the timing of the coronavirus pandemic. He has moved under cover of COVID-19 to aggressively weaken Clean Air Act protections, handing a series of deregulatory wins to polluting industries at the expense of public health. In short, Wheeler — who used to work as a coal company lobbyist — has been busy making his former employers happy. 

But what of the rest of us? Maybe Wheeler is banking on the fact that, with work, schools and our families’ futures in disarray, we’re not paying attention. 

One thing Wheeler didn’t bank on: Moms are nothing if not multitaskers. While sheltering in our homes and juggling even more responsibility for the care and education of our children, we are outraged at Wheeler’s callous disregard for the health and wellbeing of our families. 

That’s why more than 50 mothers, grandmothers and youth-activist members of Moms Clean Air Force — an organization I help direct — from across the country, along with scores of representatives from allied organizations, are testifying at a three-day public hearing on the particle pollution proposal that starts tomorrow. Wheeler has neither deferred nor extended the comment period for the particle pollution proposal; indeed, he has set a timeline that would be considered rushed even without a national health emergency and state-at-home orders in place. But moms are in full fighting mode. We will forcefully oppose Wheeler’s refusal to strengthen the particle pollution standards.

America is staggering under the burden of a lethal respiratory pandemic. Wheeler’s refusal to follow science is literally making us sick.

Molly Rauch is public health policy director for Moms Clean Air Force.

Tags air toxics Andrew Wheeler Clean Air Act Climate change Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Environment environmental protections environmental rules EPA Mercury pollution Pandemic particulate matter pollutants soot Trump administration

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